#LoveOzYA Q&A with Carly Nugent for SUGAR
Carly Nugent’s first novel, The Peacock Detectives, won the Readings Children’s Book Prize, was a CBCA Younger Readers Honour Book, and was shortlisted for the Text Prize, the Australian Book Design Awards and the Sisters in Crime Davitt Awards. Sugar, her second novel, is inspired by her own experience of Type 1 Diabetes and is her first YA novel.
#LoveOzYA’s Dayna Smith chatted to Carly about raising awareness about diabetes, her fascination with names, and writing first person POV novels. This one would be great for classroom discussion as it also touches on themes of domestic and family violence, and complicated grief. Don’t miss the teaching notes!
What’s Sugar about?
It’s a Young Adult novel about a 16-year-old girl called Persephone. She has recently been diagnosed with type one diabetes, so she’s dealing with managing her diabetes, trying to understand her diagnosis, and at the same time, she’s dealing with the loss of her dad. Around the same time she was diagnosed, her dad died, and the circumstances of that are a bit uncertain. So she’s trying to figure out both of those things at the same time. And while that’s happening, she stumbles across a woman who’s died in the bush, and then she’s trying to figure out that mystery, as well.
You wrote Sugar after being diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at the age of 28. Your previous novel, The Peacock Detectives, was a junior fiction novel. So why did you decide to write a YA novel instead of adult fiction, or even junior fiction?
It’s a good question and I think there’s a couple of answers. One of them is that I’d been living overseas for a long time, and I came back to Australia and I did my teaching masters. While I was doing that training, I noticed that there wasn’t a lot of awareness of diabetes with kids. In schools, we talk a lot about asthma and anaphylaxis, but there wasn’t a lot of discussion of diabetes. And I also volunteer a bit with Diabetes Victoria camps. So I’ve met a lot of young people with diabetes who have shared their experiences with me, because I didn’t have diabetes as a teenager, so through their experience, I learned that there are misconceptions about diabetes, both kids to kids, and also teachers to kids. I thought there was a gap there, in terms of that understanding. So I knew I wanted to write it from a young person’s perspective and then when I started writing, the voice that came out was a teenage voice rather than a younger person’s voice.
It certainly increased my awareness, as I thought back to a girl in my school who had diabetes and I hadn’t realised how much she was dealing with, with monitoring her insulin and food, on top of everything else.
It can be very hard to notice diabetes sometimes because unless you’ve got a really visible insulin pump or something like that, you wouldn’t even know that someone had diabetes or was dealing with that stuff. I think that’s what fiction is really good at, taking you into someone’s actual experience rather than reading nonfiction or getting facts about something.
The main character, Persephone, is a very angry character. She swears a lot and punches a boy at her school. What was it like writing such an angry person?
Like I said before, when I started writing this book, the voice came out in that way and the anger in that voice came naturally. And I think it was to do with having some of my own anger at having diabetes, and other stuff that was going on, and just the world in general. I feel like generally in my life, I’m a fairly happy person, but I think everyone feels those emotions, like anger and sadness. And I think, for me, to put that in my writing is a way of accessing those things, or like recognizing those emotions, giving them an outlet, I suppose. I think definitely a lot of the anger was anger that I was feeling about other things that then I put into Persephone. And also, thinking back to when I was 16, I didn’t have diabetes, but I was angry. And I was angry at lots of different things when I was 16 and I was trying to imagine that on top of having diabetes.
I started re-reading The Peacock Detectives, which I loved when I read it a few years ago. Re-reading it now, it occurred to me that I wouldn’t necessarily realise they were written by the same person because the voices of the two main characters are so very different. Were there things you did differently to capture such a different voice?
I don’t know that I did anything differently, but I was definitely thinking differently about the world. When I wrote The Peacock Detectives, or at least when I started writing it, I hadn’t been diagnosed with diabetes. I was in a different mindset when I wrote that book. And yeah, they are very different characters.
For my process, a lot of the time I have a vague idea of story, but it really is about the character. I just start writing and I just write a lot until I feel like I’ve got the voice that that I am aiming for. So that was similar with both books. It’s just a matter of time and putting down words until it shapes itself into the character that I feel fits that story.
I find the way you use names in Sugar very interesting. Persephone talks often about people mispronouncing her name and she’s a bit obsessed with the meaning of her name – bringer of destruction. Her close family is referred by their first names, but Joseph Barnett and Alexander Manson are always referred to by their first and surnames. Can you tell us more about the decisions you made with the characters’ names?
I find names really interesting. Whenever I’m writing something, the names always need to have a meaning. Even if it’s not an obvious meaning, like, even if it’s just for me. I find it helps me to understand characters if I understand the meaning of their name. So I have a baby name book and I like to look in there. There are some really random, interesting names and it has the meaning of the names. I just find that really fascinating.
So in Sugar, I wanted to choose names that said something about the characters. The story very loosely follows the myth of Persephone and the idea of being in two worlds – you’re on the surface, and then you’re in the underworld, and you’re facing those darker things about life. And that was what I felt Persephone was doing. She crossed a boundary with her diagnosis and with dealing with her dad, where she felt like she was on the other side of something. So that was where that name came from.
And then a lot of the other family names. Demi is Demeter, also from the myth, and Iris is another Greek character. And then with Joseph Barnett and Alexander Manson. That’s a really interesting question about using first and surname. And I think it just came naturally for her when I was writing her, that that’s what she would do. I think the reason is that she’s trying to understand Joseph Burnett, and he’s a mystery to her. So using his first and surname is a symbol of the fact that she doesn’t really know him and she wants to know him. And with Alexander Manson, it’s similar, he’s a bit of a mystery to her, but she also doesn’t really want to know him. She wants to know why he said what he said, but she’s not interested in him as a person, so I think it’s a bit of a way of distancing herself from him. Obviously, they were choices I made when I was writing, but they also just came out in her voice, like that was just the way she would describe those characters in particular.
Interesting. That makes sense. And actually, Alexander being called Alexander Manson makes even more sense with the Greek references to that as well. Then she meets Erin and she’s referred to by her first name only.
Yeah, I think with Erin, she immediately feels a connection with her, even though she doesn’t quite know why. They’ve had a similar experience and they’re both feeling a similar guilt about things that have happened. I think she recognizes that in her face, and in the way she behaves. I think that’s why she feels like using her first name makes sense because they have that connection.
And then of course, there’s the wonderful name for a dog, Bernice, who is also another major character because Persephone does a lot of walking the dog in this book, as a way of getting away from her home situation.
Yeah, and I think it says in the book, but it came from an Edgar Allan Poe short story about a woman who comes back from the dead or is a ghost, I can’t really remember. But the story’s called Berenice.
How was the process of writing Sugar similar or different to writing The Peacock Detectives?
There were similarities and differences. Similar in the sense that, like I was saying before, I started with a character and just wrote until the story found itself through writing. But different in the sense that when I was writing The Peacock Detectives, I was living overseas, and I was part of a couple of different writing groups so I often shared chapters with the group and I’d get feedback that way. Whereas writing Sugar, I didn’t have that. I’d send full drafts to some close friends who are great beta-readers, but it had mostly been myself and my editor, Jane Pearson, who is amazing, and had a lot to do with Sugar. We had lots of great video chats and emails over the last few years talking about ideas. So that was quite different. With the first book, lots of people had seen it and had given feedback, but this time around, lots of people haven’t read it in draft format, so I’m finding it interesting now that the book is almost out. I’ve got a few copies and I’ve given them to my family and they’re reading it for the first time, which is exciting and a bit scary. I gave it to my mum the other week and I wasn’t sure how it would go because there’s a bit of swearing and some interesting things in there. But she liked it.
What do you hope readers will take away from Sugar?
I hope I gives them an insight into what it’s like to live with diabetes. Getting into a character’s head and seeing lived experience from inside is really important.
I think the idea that shitty things happen in your life, and you’re allowed to feel like they’re shitty. When I was diagnosed, I was like, right, I’m going to be positive about this and I’m going to do the right things and I’m going to figure this out. I think that’s important, but I think it’s also important to be able to say, this actually sucks. And that it’s alright to feel that way and it’s alright to express that and get it out. Then you can be positive about it, you can look at the positive sides and find some hope in it as well. I guess that’s a message that I’m hoping readers take away from it.
I definitely think that’s true. One of the most haunting things for me is that line that’s mentioned a couple of times by Iris, talking about kids growing up because they see adults doing things that they know they shouldn’t do, but they do anyway. I think that stood out to me because there is a lot Persephone is dealing with her body and trying to manage that, as well as people being crappy and doing things that they shouldn’t do. There’s a lot of hurt in there and she’s trying to make sense of all of that.
Yeah. I think half the battle is the pressure you put on yourself to always do the right thing. Once you’ve been dealing with diabetes for a while, you know how to count carbohydrates and how to dose your insulin and all of those things. But sometimes it doesn’t work. Sometimes you’ll still get high blood sugar, or you’ll still get low blood sugar, even though you know you’re trying to do the right thing. You know, in theory, what you’re meant to be doing, but that doesn’t always work out in practice. I think for me, when I was diagnosed, at the beginning, I didn’t know anyone else who had diabetes, so I was really worried about it and saying my blood sugar has to be between four and eight. If it’s not, then it’s a catastrophe and I’ve done it, it’s my fault and I’ve done something wrong. And then when I moved back to Australia, I met some other adults who had diabetes as well. And I started to realize that everyone has bad days, everyone has moments where they’ve got high blood sugar, and it’s okay. I’ll do what I need to do to rectify it, but I’m not going to beat myself up about it. And I think that extends out into other things in life as well. You can’t always get it exactly right. You can’t always be perfect, and you’re going to make bad decisions sometimes. I don’t think I’m trying to give people an out for being shitty people making bad decisions, but I think it’s just trying to understand the complexity, the complexity of diabetes, and then also the complexity of Iris’ situation. It’s not as easy as you should just leave, or why do you put up with this? There’s so much else going on there that influences what might look like a really bad decision to someone else. I guess that’s something I wanted to investigate.